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Pfefferman Judaism

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

In the third season’s finale of “Transparent,” a hastily improvised Passover celebration on a cruise ship goes awry when Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), who is transitioning from male to female, and her three children are unable to put aside their various agendas and focus on the ritual. It’s just another day in the chaotic life of the Pfefferman family, the members of which can never quite figure out what being Jewish means to them, how much they want to celebrate it and whether or not it is getting in the way of their various Southern California-style quests for self-fulfillment.

Is “Transparent,” which critics have called the most Jewish show in the history of television, promoting a 21st-century image of Jews as narcissists?

“Transparent” certainly puts Judaism front and center, from its depiction of everything from a Shabbat dinner to a Yom Kippur service to a Havdalah ceremony. Maura’s son, Josh (Jay Duplass), falls in love with Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), while Maura’s elder daughter, Sarah (Amy Landecker), applies for a spot on the board of her temple and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) cancels her bat mitzvah but still recites her Haftarah for the bartender, Jules (Mel Shimkovitz), who shows up not knowing that the simcha has been aborted. Gender studies scholar Judith Butler was quoted last year in New York magazine saying that she sees the show as actually “much better on Jewish life than it is on trans life.”

Ted Merwin
Ted Merwin

But the show, which inspired two lively sessions at the Association for Jewish Studies conference in San Diego last month, has also struck academics and critics alike for the self-centeredness that the Pfeffermans constantly display.

This seems like a relatively new Jewish stereotype. Woody Allen and Philip Roth helped to popularize the conception of Jews (especially Jewish men) as neurotic, but not necessarily narcissistic. The vulgar, cigar-chomping Hollywood producer played by Michael Lerner in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1991 “Barton Fink” was an exception, not the rule. Jews were often depicted as dedicated more to the welfare of others than to themselves; think of Richard Dreyfus’s character in Paul Mazursky’s 1986 “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” who lets a drifter, played by Nick Nolte, move into his palatial home, to the detriment of his marriage and family.

Even the characters on “Seinfeld” were more focused on the minutiae of etiquette and morality than on self-aggrandizement per se; it was their ethical, rather than psychological, lapses for which they were hauled into court on the show’s final episode.

It was not until the wealthy, utterly self-absorbed Larry David character in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” that the stereotype of a Jewish egotist reached its full flower. But Larry is hardly on a mission to discover his authentic self, if, indeed, he could be said to have one. By contrast, the Pfeffermans, who are all aching for authentic human connection, seek both self-understanding and spiritual redemption through religion and through sex. Neither is, alas, as fulfilling as they want it to be. And so they search endlessly for another spiritual and erotic fix, which is facilitated by the fact that they seem to have an endless supply of disposable income.

Yet Jonathan Freedman, a professor at the University of Michigan who chaired one of the AJS panels last month  told me that he sees the Pfeffermans less as self-centered than as “wounded” by their ancestors’ experiences during the Holocaust; as is seen in the second season of the show, Maura’s aunt Gitl, born Gershon, was persecuted for being transgender in 1930s Berlin. Freedman thus sees them as “cripples rather than monsters, struggling against both their genes and their history.”

Similarly, Riv-Ellen Prell, who teaches American studies at the University of Minnesota, opined in an email that she doesn’t see the show’s characters as narcissistic at all. “The family members struggle with and support one another. This is hardly the stuff of stereotypes, nor is it new. The struggle to become an adult in a family beset by trauma is not narcissistic.”

But the very fact that the family members are so connected to one another is read by one critic, Kathryn VanArendonk of vulture.com, as a double-edged sword. None of the characters, she wrote “are ever as complicated, as thoughtful, or as committed as they are when they’re together.” As a result, she believes, the show “fumbles whenever it tries to acknowledge life outside the Pfefferman family,” meaning life “outside of white, liberal, affluent Los Angeles Judaism.” 

Ted Merwin teaches religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College. He writes about theater for the paper. He is the author, most recently, of “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.”

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